Much has been made of the Great Repeal Act which will transfer EU laws and their accompanying regulations into UK law. The Government is pretending that this will be both straightforward and effective. In the case of environmental and wildlife protection laws it is likely to be neither – most of our existing laws are tied to our EU membership. In any case merely transferring laws is not enough, the opportunity should be taken to reform and strengthen them.
That may sound odd – most politician and business organisations would agree with reform, but want many laws weakened or rescinded. Developers are rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of EU ‘red tape’ disappearing. That red tape is vital protection for species such as bats and great crested newts, and rare and vulnerable habitats such as heathland, woodlands and wetlands. Many of our most valuable wildlife sites are only protected in a European context which will no longer apply. This means that we will not have bodies to hold people to account and to impose sanctions: currently, within the EU, the Government itself can be sanctioned for not enforcing legislation. It cannot hold itself to account when we leave.
Another issue is that many relevant provisions and protections are in other areas, in particular agriculture, where major reform of farm support is inevitable. With regard to chemicals, Britain was in the forefront of resistance to the EU ban on neonicotinoids, a once widely-used pesticide which has been proved to harm bees and other pollinating insects. With all aspects of the huge body of law now open to scrutiny in Parliament, there are bound to be further challenges to the ban.
These anomalies and difficulties could be mitigated by major legislative reform. The Government is preparing a 25-year plan for the environment, including wildlife protection, and a similar document for agriculture. This is a unique opportunity for bold reform merging these two elements into one world-leading piece of environmental legislation. The Wildlife Trusts, as a member of the Greener UK coalition, says: ‘We believe that the people of these islands deserve a world-class environment: clean air, clear water, a stable climate, healthy seas and thriving wildlife in the places we love.’
So far the environment has been virtually ignored in the whole Brexit debate. It is time to for that to change.